Kenyan Hockey: Some hoping and praying for things to get better

Lucy Wangechi (L) and Recheal Owour of Blazers reacts against Army Ladies of Ghana during their African Cup Club Championship at Sikh Union Club in Nairobi on February 19, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

In the heart of Kenya's sporting history lies a tale of an illustrious past and a faded present—of a sport that once held a significant place in the nation's heart and schools.

Hockey, a game once adored by many, now struggles to find its footing amidst a myriad of challenges.

Decades ago, the sport was a symbol of pride, an integral part of the Kenyan sports fabric.

A hockey stick was a requirement for any student joining secondary school, a testament to the sport's widespread popularity and influence.

The men's team, once formidable, used to compete with hockey elites like India and Bangladesh.

For instance, Kenya finished fourth at the 1971 International Hockey Federation (IHF) World Cup, her best position to date.

However, all these remains part of history. The golden age of Kenyan hockey seems like a distant memory, overshadowed by endless issues, and the deteriorating nature of the game is deeply concerning.

Today, an uncompetitive Kenya Hockey Union (KHU) Premier League sets the pace for a continuing downfall of the sport in the country. The league, both men’s and women’s, have no sponsor, their weekly league fixtures have been reduced to ifs...They're not guaranteed.

For example, the last time defending champions Butali Sugar Warriors and Strathmore University Scorpions played was last month.

Scorpions, who are the women champions, last played on September 24 when they defeated DFG Wolverines 3-0, while men’s champions Butali last played on September 16 when they thrashed Sik Union 4-3. It all ended there.

It is a worrying trend for the game where, despite having 10 teams in men’s league and eight clubs in women’s league, the federation cannot complete the games in time.

In fact, the 2022 champions were crowned in January this year.

"It's disheartening to witness the decline of a sport we once held so dear. We've dedicated our lives to hockey, and it's painful to see the lack of attention and support. We yearn for change and long to see Kenya reclaim its position on the global hockey stage," said a player, who sought anonymity.

Pauline Ochieng during the announcement of the National Women's Hockey Team Olympics support grant at Nairobi City Park.[Jonah Onyango,Standard]

Golden history

Hockey first found its roots in Kenya around 1900, primarily as a reserve game for the Sikhs and Goan communities.

The sport gradually gained momentum, and by the 1950s, competitive hockey was being played. Kenya made its international mark at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, where the men's team finished 10th, setting the stage for their future representation in the Olympic arena.

Since then, Kenya represented the Africa continent in virtually all the Olympic games that followed (save for boycotts in 1976 and 1980) until 1992, when the smooth ride was broken by Egypt and later by South Africa in 1996.

The peak Kenya's performance was during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, where the team finished 6th, and the 1971 World Cup in Barcelona, Spain, where they achieved a remarkable 4th place, triumphing over hockey giants like Germany, Argentina, and India.

The best performance by the Kenyan men's Hockey team at the Olympics was the 6th spot ranking at the Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, while the worst performance was in 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, when Kenya was ranked last.

Lucy Wangechi (L) and Recheal Owour of Blazers reacts against Army Ladies of Ghana during their African Cup Club Championship at Sikh Union Club in Nairobi on February 19, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Past and present challenges

Over time, the glory days started to fade, and the decline in performance in hockey has been attributed to a multitude of factors.

Finances have been a consistent challenge, hindering the development and growth of the sport.

Lack of qualified and motivated officials, poor player selection, inadequate technical and tactical preparation, and a dearth of exposure opportunities have all played a part in the sport's decline.

Additionally, the lack of clear talent identification and development, poor tournament organisation, and uncoordinated sponsorship efforts have compounded the issues.

One critical factor contributing to Kenya's downfall in hockey is the lack of a direct qualification path to the World Cup.

The national team has had to rely on pre-qualifying tournaments, limiting their participation on the global stage to only two World Cup appearances (in 1971 and 1973). The initial surprise and success in the World Cup were followed by a disappointing 12th place finish in the second edition in Amsterdam.

The Olympics, once a platform for Kenyan hockey to shine, have also seen a decline in performance.

While Kenya participated in subsequent Olympic Games until 1992, they faced increasing challenges and competition, resulting in a drop in their overall standings. The 1988 Seoul Olympics marked a low point when Kenya suffered an 8-0 defeat at the hands of Pakistan.

The subsequent Olympics saw Kenya losing their place due to defeats in the All Africa Games Hockey title, a direct reflection of their diminishing prowess in the sport.

Gbati Asana (Left) of Army Ladies of Ghana fall down after colliding with Dominic Lotte Maria Kremer Strathmore University during their Africa Cup for Club Champions at City Park Hockey stadium in Nairobi on February 16, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

For the sport to regain its former glory, there is an urgent need to focus on coaching, administration, and management development. A clear talent identification and development strategy must be instituted, empowering local coaches and updating their knowledge to ensure that only qualified coaches manage the national team.

Coupled with lack of fitness that is always contributed by the inactive local league, Kenya was given clear signs why they should go for youth and new blood when they soaked in goals during the Birmingham Commonwealth Games last year.

They began the games with a humbling 16-0 loss to New Zealand before letting in eight goals against Australia. Kenya were in Group B alongside defending champions New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and South Africa.

They conceded a total of 50 goals after losing to South Africa 15-0 and 11-0 to Scotland in addition to their losses against Australia and New Zealand.

In the end, Kenya finished ninth at the games in Birmingham.

On a brighter note, Kenya's men qualified for the inaugural 2024 5-Aside Hockey World Cup in Oman.

The East African side beat Zambia 5-2 to win bronze and third place in the 1st African Hockey 5s World Cup Qualifiers on December 15 last year.

Lakers Hockey Club and Blazers Hockey Club are also lobbying for funds to go and compete in the 2023 Africa Cup for Club Championship set to be held in Malawi between November 18-26.

The national men’s and women’s team are also preparing to go to South Africa for the African Hockey Road To Paris 2024.

Blazers Eleanor Chebet looks on against Blazers during the KHU Women League match at City Park Hockey Stadium on November 12, 2022. The match ended in a barren draw. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

Possible remedies to resurrect Kenyan hockey have been proposed by concerned stakeholders.

The Kenya Hockey Union (KHU) must prioritize arranging numerous international build-up matches for the national team before international competitions, targeting formidable hockey nations for these matches.

Coaching strategies need to be modernized, aligning with sport scientific principles and the realities of modern hockey competition.

Reviving and decentralizing hockey associations across districts and provinces is crucial for talent identification and development, facilitating grassroots engagement and co-ordination of the sport's activities.

Financial stability is pivotal, and the KHU should actively seek sponsors to ensure adequate funding for the sport's growth and sustenance in the country.

Amidst the decline and challenges, a voice emerges from the shadows, shedding light on the struggles of hockey in Kenya.

Kenya's journey in hockey is a stark reminder of the importance of nurturing and supporting sports at both grassroots and elite levels.

The fall of Kenyan hockey serves as a cautionary tale, urging a collective effort to revive a once-great sport and restore it to its former glory. Only through sustained commitment, effective management, and renewed passion can Kenya's hockey rise once again and regain its place of honor in the international arena.

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